The Carnival at Bray - Jessie Ann Foley

It's 1993, and Generation X pulses to the beat of Kurt Cobain and the grunge movement. Sixteen-year-old Maggie Lynch is uprooted from big-city Chicago to a windswept town on the Irish Sea. Surviving on care packages of Spin magazine and Twizzlers from her rocker uncle Kevin, she wonders if she'll ever find her place in this new world. When first love and sudden death simultaneously strike, a naive but determined Maggie embarks on a forbidden pilgrimage that will take her to a seedy part of Dublin and on to a life- altering night in Rome to fulfill a dying wish. Through it all, Maggie discovers an untapped inner strength to do the most difficult but rewarding thing of all, live. (Synopsis courtesy of Goodreads)

The carnival at Bray stood braced against the rain on the rocky coastline of the Irish Sea, the pink and green lights of the old-fashioned Ferris wheel winking and dissolving in the reflection of the waves. Maggie had already ridden the Takeoff, which made her feel like a pebble being skipped across a lake; the Crazy Frog, which whiplashed her back and forth so hard that she dinged her head off the safety bar and emerged with a painful purple egg already rising from her temple; and finally, Space Odyssey, which spun around so fast that gravity suctioned her and Ronnie to the cushioned wall like splattered bugs.
The opening lines (seen above) foreshadow the rollercoaster ride that the next few months in Ireland will bring for Maggie. Things are already rocky between Maggie and her mother and stepfather, but when Kevin shows up for Christmas and is soon thereafter removed from Maggie's life, things begin to fall apart around her, with the exception of Eoin and Sean Dan. Eoin is a young man who works at a pub and Sean Dan is the 99 year old man who lives nearby in his house on the hill.

The novel is atmospheric and brooding, and characters throughout are complex and well-rounded. I really enjoyed Maggie's journey as she tries to come into her own in the wake of so many family complications, and the way that the emotional journey is so closely mirrored with the physical journey she eventually takes with Eoin in the second half of the novel (I'm trying not to give away any spoilers!)
Take the boy. Don't ask permission. There will always be time to do the responsible thing. Before that, live.
I really felt Maggie's connection to her uncle, and his irresponsible behaviour mixed with sincere insights into life make him wonderfully nuanced even in his more tragic state. I also enjoyed the community vibe given off by residents of the town, even in the face of relational obstacles. I really liked the way that life in Ireland was shown to be so unique compared to Maggie's previous life in Chicago. There is much to like about this book, and although some may wish for more action, I think the book is well-balanced and makes some important insights into the process of growing up and becoming independent.

Highly Recommended


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